Luck of Life

From time immemorial, mankind has been fascinated by the stars, so much so that idol worship, or worshipping strange gods, is called akum, avodat kochavim umazalot, worshipping stars and the zodiac. While we may consider this kind of worship foolish, the Torah and our commentators understand that there is an intelligent albeit a misguided basis to such worship. If such worship were totally foolish, the Torah would not have gone to such lengths to constantly prohibit and warn us against this practice.

This brings us to one of the key elements of Parshat Lech Lecha. Hashem promises Avraham a great reward, to which Avraham responds that since he has no children, his servant Eliezer will inherit whatever reward Hashem gives him. In essence, Avraham says what good will a reward do me. To this, Hashem responds by promising Avraham biological offspring. Then, “He took him outside and said, ‘Gaze now toward the heavens and count the stars if you are able to count them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ ”

The overriding question here is why was it necessary to take Avraham outside? Could Hashem not have told Avraham that his offspring would be like the stars while Avraham was still in his tent?

Rashi cites a Medrash that fills in the blanks in the dialogue between Hashem and Avraham Avinu while deepening our initial confusion about worshipping the stars. The Medrash says that when Hashem told Avraham to go outside, He was not referring to leaving the tent, but rather to leave his astrology behind. Avraham had read the zodiac signs and understood that he was not destined to have children. To this, Hashem responded that while it was true that Avram and Sarai were not destined to have children, Hashem would change their names to Avraham and Sarah, and these newly evolved beings would not be constrained by their previous zodiac signs. Alternatively, Hashem took him out of this world and raised him above the stars.

In either case, it would appear that Hashem gave credibility to Avraham’s concern about his astrological fate, writes Rabbi Dunner in Mikdash Halevi. If so, what do the stars and the zodiac signs, the mazalot, convey? What does it mean when we wish someone a mazal tov? As far as taking Avraham outside, Rabbi Wolbe, who was a master teacher himself, explains that a visual aid for an idea concretizes the idea more than just hearing it.

Rabbi Frand cites Rav Meir Shapiro to offer a novel insight into this dialogue. Hashem told Avraham to go out and count the stars. Without questioning the logic of this command, Avraham went out and started counting. To this, Hashem responded, “This will be your offspring,” your offspring too will refuse to acknowledge the impossibility of any command, and will try, try again to fulfill Hashem’s command. This is how we change our future, continues Rabbi Frand, for we find new strengths and capabilities within ourselves that help us go beyond our perceived limitations. Doing a physical act,  notes  Zos Yaakov, further concretizes an abstract idea.

Obviously, the analogy of the stars to Avraham’s offspring was meant to go beyond the mere numbers. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers yet another lesson Hashem wanted to teach Avraham. Hashem wanted Avraham to understand that he and his descendents would not be bound by the natural laws of this world. Go outside and count the stars, says Hashem. They are much more numerous than anything on earth and their existence is directly under Hashem’s providence without intermediaries. So too will your offspring be directly under God’s hand. Your place, adds Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, is above the natural mazal, zodiacal, influences.

Nevertheless, it is important to realize that there is a valid idea of mazal, an idea that has nothing to do with luck, as it is often translated. The Gemarrah itself validates that different Hebrew months under different zodiac signs create different energies. For example, one shouldn’t initiate a lawsuit with a gentile in the month of Av, but rather in the more propitious Adar. Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, the Sifsei Chaim, cites Gemarrah Nidah in explaining that before a child is born, Hashem contemplates the embryo and decides what strengths and challenges will be necessary for it to fulfill its mission on earth. Having children or earning an easy living, for example, are not based on merit but on one’s mazal, on what nozel, what flows down from above. Mazal is the potential within life’s circumstances. It is up to each of us to use our mazal, the use the gifts and challenges that flow from above, in a constructive way.

We are now left with the question of how the stars and the zodiac signs and, by extension, other natural phenomena came to be worshipped as gods. Rabbi Akiva Tatz in Living Inspiredmasterfully explains this development. The mazalot, the zodiac signs and stars, were created by Hashem to act as His emissaries and pipelines. They form the interface between the upper worlds and the lower world in which we exist and bring the energy of the upper world down into our world. But they do not act alone. They act only under the direction of Hashem Himself. Astrology is therefore not predicting the future, but reading the present energy and understanding how they can affect and influence the future.

Rabbi Tatz offers an illuminating analogy. If we take a bag of assorted seeds, the average person could predict that plants will grow from these seeds. Some may even know which seeds would produce grains, which flowers, and which trees. But a trained horticulturist could predict exactly what variety of grain or which specific flower would grow from each seed. His predictions are not prophecy but the result of his knowledge of plants and seeds. Similarly a trained astrologer will look at the stars, interpret what energy is contained in each, and “predict” what the future will be. The predictions are already contained in the energy of the stars just as the future plant is already contained within the seed. The zodiac signs are channels through which the energy from above flows down just as the seed is the medium from which the full plant bursts forth and grows. Just as the seed is planted by the farmer (or cast upon the earth by “nature”), so are the stars “planted” by the Creator. Idolaters focus on the channels, the seeds, and ignore the guiding hand of the Creator.

Herein lies the beginning of idol worship. Mankind originally understood the difference between natural forces such as the stars or wind or fire, and the Source of all these things, Hakodosh Boruch Hu, but reasoned that certainly the emissaries of the also King deserve honor and respect. Eventually, however, they forgot about Hashem and worshipped only the messengers.

What brought about this change? Rabbi Tatz explains that selfishness was at the root of this change. Someone who values the King wishes to be of service to the King, while one who pays homage exclusively to the messengers wants something for himself. His service is a bribe, as cited from Rabbi Simcha Wasserman, as one would bribe a store clerk to get a better price on merchandise at the expense of the shop owner. A God fearing man understands that Hashem is everything, and seeks to serve Him, while an idolater’s philosophy is that I am everything; let’s see how the gods can serve me and what I can get. If Hashem counts and is the source of reality, then that is worship. But if I count and all that matters is what I desire, that is idolatry. The stars, as influential as they may be, have no independent power but receive their power only through Hashem’s will.

If we now go back to Avraham Avinu and his dialogue with Hashem, we can better understand what Hashem was telling him. When Hashem took Avraham outside, He was not merely taking him outside the tent. He took Avraham outside the sphere of influence of the stars. The stars rule the natural order I created, says Hashem, but you, Avraham and your progeny, are transcendent and rise above the stars. You can define your own destiny.

How can we define and affect our destiny? By making His will our will through the performance of mitzvoth. Through the mitzvoth we become partners with Hashem without the need of the intervening mazalot. We break through to the original Source of all.

Rabbi Doniel Ochion, the Ohr Doniel, explains that Hashem created all our life circumstances, our “mazal”, as the circumstances and tools necessary for each of us to fulfill our personal mission. By overcoming our challenges and living according to Hashem’s will we earn merit for the next world. As such there is no “bad” mazal, for it is all part of God’s tailor made plan for us. Nevertheless, we can change our mazal, or perceived destiny, through Tefillah, mitzvoth and good deeds. In fact, notes Rabbi Ochion, Avraham’s stars predicted that he would remain childless, but through his work of bringing others to the belief in Hashem, he merited changing his destiny. Similarly, Leah was destined to marry Esau, but through her sincere prayers and constant tears, she changed her destiny, not only marrying Yaakov but bearing him six sons, a full half the precursors of the twelve tribes.

In light of this discussion, it is necessary to point out an interesting question raised by Rabbi Pincus, the Tiferet Shimshon, and explore his explanation. If Hashem has already determined ourmazal, what’s the point of wishing people mazal tov on momentous occasions? Rabbi Pincus explains that offering a mazal tov is not so much a wish but a prayer. We are praying that the child, or the new couple, have a good mazal, but if Hashem has determined that their lives will be difficult, may our prayers help break through to the Source and change that destiny.

With sacrifices we cannot change our mazal, but with Torah, avodah and gemilut chassadim, with Torah study, prayer (service of the heart), and acts of loving kindness we can change our original mazal. That’s because these activities connect us directly to the original Source without going through the conduit of the mazal, and can thereby redirect the mazal itself. Torah, which preceded the natural world, is above the world, and therefore self sacrifice for its study, even of a businessman who religiously devotes some time at night for Torah study after a hard day’s work, or someone who goes to shiurim when it may be inconvenient, has the ability to affect his/her mazal.

Similarly, gemilat chassadim can effect such change. The Gemarrah in Baba Basra relates the story of Binyamin Hatzadik whose task it was to distribute tzedakah to the poor. Once, the money in the tzedakah fund had run out when a poor woman came begging for Binyamin Hatzadik to save her life and the lives of her children. Binyamin Hatzadik used his own money to support her and her children. The Gemarrah then writes that Binyamin was destined to die a short time later, but the ministering angels came before Hakodosh Boruch Hu and argued, “Isn’t it true that he who saves one soul it is as if he saved an entire world?” Hashem immediately tore up the decree and granted Binyamin Hatzadik another 22 years of life.

The case for tefillah, for prayer, comes directly from Kings II. King Hizkiyahu received a prophecy that he would soon die. He turned his face to the wall and prayed and cried bitterly, and was given a second chance to live and correct his error.

Since we do not know the dynamics of our mazal, our job is to do the best we can, but in balance, we must also accept that sometimes Hashem’s answer is no, and we must accept that reality as well.

With this perspective, we can now understand why it says, “Ein mazal bYisroel – there is nomazal in the Nation of Israel.” Even though each of us has a personal mazal, our Nation and its history are not under the natural pathways of life that Hashem has put into place, but, like Avraham Avinu, we rise above them and are ruled directly by the hand of God. As the Mikdosh Halevi writes, the predictions of astrological signs do not determine our national fate, but are meant to arouse us to prayer and greater devotion to mitzvoth. Let us learn to utilize the power of Torah, prayer, and mitzvoth to bring about a good mazal for ourselves and for Klal Yisroel.